What Colour Is Your School's Tag?


Not unsurprisingly, the launch of the My School website opened a giant can of worms. Parents logged on to check their childrens’ schools and then either cracked out the bubbly or cursed themselves for having been so stupid.

It’s a simple enough concept. If your local smart factory is above average in reading, writing, spelling, grammar and numeracy, it receives a green rating. If its test results fall below par, it gets a red rating. The data on which these ratings are based is drawn from a single day of NAPLAN testing in grades three, five, seven and nine. The colour coding presumably helps all parents — no matter what difficulties they may have with basic statistics — work out what sort of school they’ve sent their kids to. Green = Go. Red = Stop.

In the weeks since its launch, the My School website has given birth to a first generation of school league tables. Schools with high scores revelled in the positive media attention as an education landscape marked by serious disparities was exposed. A cursory comparison of the deep green tags awarded to Sydney Church of England Grammar School (with a 10:1 student: teacher ratio) and the red tags given Mudgee High School (13:1), for example, points to one such disparity.

The green and red My School tags can’t possibly tell the whole story about education as Jane Caro has pointed out. They don’t indicate how many parents have a job, or indeed, if there’s work available in these areas. They give no indication as to family dependence on welfare, attitudes towards education at home, the incidence of single parents, broken homes, abuse, kids left to fend for themselves and a dozen other factors that help determine a kid’s success at school.

Tags don’t tell the story of the bus crash that is Indigenous education, they don’t explain why remote schools have trouble attracting and retaining good teachers, or why kids on the fringes of our big cities just don’t see the point of Pythagoras.

The only way to make the My School results meaningful is to link cause and effect. That is, to track trends across suburbs and regions and see, for instance, if literacy improves as a result of employing more teachers in a given area in a given school. Until trends like this are gauged, this "snapshot" is nothing more than who ran fastest on sports day. In the meantime, publishing this data may do more harm than good.

Education does not exist in a vacuum. For the Government to effectively pass judgment on a school because "parents need to know" and then to walk away from the panoply of issues raised is not good enough.

To be fair, the Rudd Government has made a start.

There is a glimmer of a national curriculum, halls are being built in primary schools and high school kids are starting to get laptops. These are superficial examples — window dressing — and they certainly don’t add up to any sort of education revolution. To make any meaningful progress, federal and state governments will have to sit down together to work out how to get rid of the red bits. This, to say the least, will be a challenge.

My prediction is that, in time, My School will go the way of Grocery Watch. If the red tags stay in place year after year parents will not be happy. Those who have no choice but to send their kids to "underperforming" schools will harbour a resentment that the great Australian dream is not for all. In the absence of any real solutions it may be easier for our leaders to take down the messenger than to listen to what he has to say. I don’t think there are any real solutions to the education imbalance that don’t involve spending large amounts of money.

Firstly, as a high school maths and science teacher, I have seen the quality of new teachers decline over the years. As long as the job market stays healthy and state governments keep teachers’ wages low, the best minds will see the writing on the wall. It’s just taken South Australian teachers two-and-a-half years to win a pay rise. Last year, out of a graduating class of nearly 200, only one student at my son’s school indicated he wanted to become a teacher.

Teachers are frustrated in their day-to-day work by a range of issues: an ever-increasing workload, departmental meddling, time wasted on administration that doesn’t necessarily improve learning outcomes and — perhaps most egregiously — the perceived hostility from a community that looks to blame schools and teachers for everything from bad driving habits to teen pregnancy. A show of support for educators from politicians would not go astray.

Secondly: the provision of great schools. An inspiring classroom has an interactive whiteboard, decent air-conditioning, good carpet, a motivated teacher, up-to-date computers, projectors, digital microscopes, opportunities to explore, discover and develop reasoning, imagination and social skills. Sorry, but that description doesn’t apply to most state school classrooms I know.

Recent federal stimulus funding to schools has been applied too narrowly, spent on what Gillard and Rudd think schools need and what is logistically most simple to supply. Funding priorities haven’t developed from discussions about individual school requirements; after all, that might have taken more time than the government was willing to invest in the rush to stimulate the economy.

In South Australia, the state government is in the process of closing and amalgamating schools into "super schools" with populations of two to three thousand students. Overseas experience has shown that education works best in smaller, more sedate, settings. Kids get lost in the crowd.

In more affluent areas, which are usually distinguished by higher levels of parental involvement, less complexity in students’ lives and more permanent, experienced teachers, this isn’t such a problem. But on the fringes of our big cities, where schools face a different set of concerns, such as absenteeism, disengagement and low staff morale, learning outcomes for kids may be greatly affected. I would argue that super schools are a money-and-land grab. Where will they rate on the My School website?

Thirdly, and most worryingly, is how to fix the society schools are in. To blame a teacher or a whole school for not getting a green flag is to miss the point entirely.

Schools are only one part of an equation that involves parents: are they making sure homework gets done; are they keeping their kids off computers and away from tellies; are they supporting school policies with which they might not necessarily agree; are they helping out in the canteen? Also needing consideration are governments, teachers, school boards, P and F committees, local businesses, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and an entertainment culture that portrays schools as nerd factories and cool kids as the ones who find happiness in hair extensions and iPhones.

A more meaningful step toward the creation of a school reporting system would surely be to link student achievement to family involvement in school life, to local business participation and the like. Of course, this is an almost impossible ask which once more draws the validity of the My School system into question.

Why does an Aboriginal child living in Katherine not get the same education as a kid at Melbourne’s Xavier College or Adelaide’s Scotch College? It’s called the market place, choice, social Darwinism. If you sup with the devil you’re sure to get indigestion. One thing is for certain. When a government takes refuge in a new website you can be sure they don’t have any real answers.

If we want to improve national outcomes for education, maybe another round of meetings should take place. This time, though, let’s get real teachers from real schools and ask them what needs to be done.

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